In China, Atlanta Shooting Victim's Kin Struggle To Understand Her — And Her Death

Apr 28, 2021
Originally published on May 2, 2021 4:54 am

ZHUHAI, China — Feng Daoyou loved her family, even if she never heeded their advice much.

"Marry someone, anyone," her older brother, Feng Daokun, remembers telling her for years. "We kept at it, called her a spinster. She got mad at that."

Feng preferred independence. Then, a few years ago, as her extended family's main breadwinner, she began building a new dream — a new house for her clan of loved ones in China.

That dream ended violently, when Feng, 44, was shot to death in a Georgia spa on March 16. She was one of four people killed at Young's Asian Massage, and one of six women of Asian descent who were killed in the series of attacks that day. The 21-year old man arrested in the shootings has been charged with eight counts of murder.

Feng, who'd lived in the U.S. for about five years, died a stranger in a strange land. She was the only victim with no next of kin or close friends in the U.S. who could claim her body. People whom she'd never met volunteered to organize and attend her funeral.

In death, Feng remains a mystery, even to her family in southern China. They remember her as an outgoing daughter, aunt and sister. But unlike them, she never married and never had children, though she gave generously to her nieces and nephews every lunar new year.

She seemed to relish venturing far from home. She spoke so directly and loudly her family sometimes thought she should have been born a man.

"She could do anything she put her mind to. She was tough. She never gave up. That was just her personality," remembers Daokun, her brother, who works the night shift as a security guard in the city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province.

Left: An undated photo of Feng Daoyou. She frequently talked about finding a better life in the U.S. Right: A young Feng Daoyou. She was the youngest of four siblings and left home at age 14, to work in Shenzhen. She later became a beautician in Shanghai.
Feng Daokun

The youngest of four children, Feng Daoyou was born in a village outside Lianjiang, another city in the province.

She dropped out of middle school for work. Feng's father had died when she was young, and the school fees were more than her oldest brother, Daokun, then newly married, could comfortably afford.

Better start working and find a husband, he and another brother advised her.

She did the former. In the early 1990s, China was on its way to becoming the factory of the world. As internal restrictions on movement loosened, hundreds of millions of rural residents left their fields and streamed into urban factories along China's east coast.

A teenage Feng was one of them. She left her hometown for Shenzhen, where she worked briefly in an electronics component factory. When she found the work too tiring, she became certified as a beautician. She moved to Shanghai and worked for several years in a salon there.

She'd long had ambitions of moving to the U.S. A friend whom she'd met in the Shanghai salon had already moved there. Feng wanted to follow in her footsteps.

But family came first. In 2015, Feng moved to Guangdong's Zhanjiang city to care for her other brother, who had become chronically ill. He died early the following year.

Feng began talking again about finding work in the U.S.

"We all thought she was joking," Daokun recalls with a chuckle. "How does someone who didn't even finish middle school find her way to America?"

When he received a call in April 2016 from a phone number he didn't recognize, he didn't pick up. Then a text arrived from the same number — a U.S. number.

It was from Feng.

"That was when I believed her," says Daokun.

Without telling her family, Feng had gone to Hong Kong, and from there made her way to the U.S. NPR was not able to determine how she entered the U.S. from Hong Kong. Based on the Chinese passport information her brother provided NPR, the Department of Homeland Security has no record of Feng entering or exiting the U.S.

Within a month of calling her brother, Feng told him she'd found a job as a beautician. Soon she found a second job, putting in back-to-back, 15-hour work days. She began bulk-buying groceries to save time. Daokun says his sister was impressed at how cheap shrimp and rotisserie chicken were in the U.S.

Eventually, she saved enough to buy a used car, moving cities every few months for work. Throughout, she sent money home to support her mother's living expenses in China.

But her brother urged her to come back home soon.

"For poor people like us, being busy is good, as long as we stay close to home and stay out of harm's way," says Daokun.

Feng Daokun in the apartment he rents in Zhuhai, China, where he lives with his mother, wife and children. In his sister's last call to him, the day before she was killed, "She specifically told me to ask our ancestors for protection so that she could get her U.S. green card and that she could be safe from harm," he says.
Amy Cheng / NPR

The last call his sister made to him was on March 15, the day before she was killed.

"She talked about sending money to us for Qingming, the tomb-sweeping holiday, which was coming up. Every year we would visit our ancestral tombs. She specifically told me to ask our ancestors for protection so that she could get her U.S. green card and that she could be safe from harm," remembers Daokun.

After Feng died, volunteers offered to ship her ashes back to her hometown in China. Her family refused.

"Our custom is that an unmarried woman's remains cannot enter her home village," explains Daokun. "We had nowhere to bury her."

A boulevard in Zhuhai, where Feng Daoyou's family lives. Because she was unmarried, local tradition forbade her burial in her hometown in China. Her brother hopes one day he can visit her grave outside Atlanta.
Amy Cheng / NPR

Instead, Feng was buried near where she was killed. A local volunteer group, the Atlanta Chinese American Alliance, arranged a funeral. Nearly 100 people attended, said Dr. Charles Li, the funeral organizer.

And so Feng Daoyou now rests in a cemetery just outside Atlanta, in Norcross, Georgia. She was headstrong, beautiful, hardworking. She left behind nearly zero possessions, no known close friends — and difficult questions for her anguished family.

Her brother wants to understand why she was targeted and how her killer might be brought to justice. He wonders how to guide their family in her absence.

He says he has not told their 82-year-old mother her daughter is dead, fearing for her health. The house Feng was funding will be finished this October, but he does not know how he will finish paying off the remaining mortgage.

He hopes to visit his sister's grave in Atlanta someday. But he says he's scared to go.

Amy Cheng contributed research from Zhuhai, China.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Feng Daoyou was one of eight people shot to death in an Atlanta spa this past March. She was one of six women of Asian ethnicity killed in that attack. She was the only victim with no next of kin to identify her body. Strangers volunteered to organize and attend her funeral. NPR's Emily Feng tracked down Ms. Feng's brother, who still lives in southern China and filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CLINKING)

FENG DAOKUN: (Speaking in Mandarin).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Feng Daokun makes us tea as he remembers his younger sister.

D FENG: (Through interpreter) She was very much an extrovert. She could do anything she put her mind to. She was tough. She never gave up. That's just her personality.

E FENG: Among the things she put her mind to - moving to the U.S.

D FENG: (Through interpreter) We all thought she was joking. How does someone who didn't finish middle school find her way to America?

E FENG: She proved them wrong. One day in early 2016, the brother remembers getting a call from a U.S. number.

D FENG: (Through interpreter) I didn't dare answer the phone. Then I got a text. It was my sister, and she was in America. That's when I finally believed her.

E FENG: Feng Daoyou had flown to Hong Kong, right across the border from her hometown near Zhuhai in southern China, and then flown to the U.S. without ever telling her family. Going to the U.S. was a long-held dream for her. A friend of hers she met in Shanghai had already moved. Feng wanted to follow her, but she stayed behind to care for another brother, until he died in 2016.

D FENG: (Speaking in Mandarin).

E FENG: As we talked to her brother, a small, hunched woman with a gray bob looks into his apartment.

D FENG: (Speaking in Mandarin).

E FENG: The woman is their mother. The brother yells at her to get out. He apologetically explains he hasn't told their mother her daughter is dead.

D FENG: (Through interpreter) I told her that you two are our landlords coming to renew the lease, and she needed to stay away.

E FENG: Keeping information from elders like this is a very common act of protection in China. And the brother says the mother and daughter were very close. She worked for years in Shenzhen and Shanghai beauty parlors.

D FENG: (Through interpreter) She took care of all my mother's living expenses. Every Chinese New Year, she would send over about a $150 or so - nothing too much, but there was always some.

E FENG: Before she died, she was busy paying down the mortgage on her biggest gift yet to her family. She had bought a big house in their home village a few hours outside the city. She had no immediate plans to return to China, though. She said she was waiting for a green card.

D FENG: (Through interpreter) I told her as long as she got married, I was OK with her staying. I told her, marry someone, anyone. We kept at it, called her a spinster. She got mad at that.

E FENG: Feng likely will never return to China. She was killed at the age of 44 near Atlanta, Ga., on March 16. Her brother shows us a call log on his phone from March 15, the day before she was killed, the last time they ever spoke.

D FENG: (Through interpreter) She talked about sending money home for the Tomb Sweeping holiday. She specifically told me to ask our ancestors for protection so she could get her U.S. green card and that she could be safe from harm.

E FENG: After she died, volunteers offered to ship her ashes back to her hometown in China. Her family refused them.

D FENG: (Through interpreter) Our custom is that an unmarried woman's remains cannot enter her home village. We have nowhere to bury her.

E FENG: And so now she rests just outside Atlanta. She was headstrong, beautiful, hardworking and ultimately a mystery to even her brother. She left behind nearly zero possessions and no known close friends. Her brother hopes to visit his sister in the U.S. one day, but he says he's scared to go.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Zhuhai, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.